1 Corinthians 15:1-19
Most of us, like Ebenezer Scrooge, are quick to reject another’s pity. In a rare moment in that grand Christmas epic, someone has the gall to open their heart ever so slightly to Scrooge’s miserable and pitiful existence, and he immediately reacts by spitting out, “Spare me your pity! I have no need of it!” Now, so that you do not spend the rest of our time together this morning, trying to figure out who it was who opened their heart to Scrooge’s plight, I will tell you: it was Belle, the woman who might have become his wife, had she not been displaced by the idol of his consuming lust for riches.
But I suspect that none of us really wants to be pitied by anyone, even if our very existence is miserable and pitiful. Pity is something that we just don’t want, and we are not alone in this. The folks living in Corinth also had no interest in pity or in being pitied. In the pagan environment of first century Corinth, mercy and pity were character traits that only the weak and the foolish exhibited. Mercy was a problem because it offered unearned or unmerited favor. I would be a weak and foolish person if I offered any of you here this morning the slightest touch of mercy. And that is because mercy operates in complete opposition to justice. One cannot be merciful and just at the same time. It is a contradiction. It is a paradox. We have already discussed the foolishness of God in this series, but God’s insistence on being both merciful and just contributes heavily to to his image of being both a weak and a foolish God. In the pagan mindset of the first century, it was unreasonable to protect, or attempt to protect another person from the very sane and rational demands of justice. Justice should always prevail, whatever the consequences.
Much the same was also true when it came to pity. Pity was a defect of character unworthy of those who considered themselves to be wise and mature. The act of having pity on someone, of having one’s heart opened to another’s plight, was inexcusable. It demonstrated childishness. To pity someone was to shelter them from the consequences of their own failings. Hardheartedness was a virtue.
We often admire Plato as being one of the wisest thinkers, perhaps in all of human history. But as he was planning out his perfect world, he solved the problem of beggary by dumping all of the beggars over the borders.* The intent of this out-migration was to protect the citizenry from falling into the trap of exercising pity for beggars by extending to them the mercy of a small coin. I suppose we could say that Plato had pity on the citizenry so he exported the beggars so that the citizenry wouldn’t be tempted to have pity on the beggars. Although, if he were here today, I’m sure that he would sputter some over my assessment.
My point in all of this is that we need to think about how we feel about mercy and pity. How do we feel about receiving mercy and pity? How do we feel about extending mercy and pity? Living so close to their pagan environment, many of the folks in the church at Corinth still held fast to their pagan beliefs that mercy and pity had more to do with character defects, like weakness and ignorance and foolishness than they had to do with the personality and power of God.
And that is why, in verse 19, the Apostle Paul boldly asserts “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” There it is. In plain, but offensive language. Pitied, because we cannot take the foolish leap from a crucified Jesus to a Jesus who has risen from the dead.
Verse 12 sums it up rather nicely. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” I am absolutely certain, that in every congregation, in every place in God’s kingdom, that there are people who absolutely will not accept the possibility of the resurrection of the dead, no matter how often it is proclaimed. This is inevitable. And the response to the Apostle Paul’s question is very simple: we say that there is no resurrection from the dead because there is no resurrection from the dead. Dead is dead. There is nothing beyond the grave. This life is all that there is. If there is a heaven and a hell, we live in hell now, and heaven comes to us a moment or two at a time, and that, very sparingly.
That all sounds very rational and very intelligent, and very scientific, especially compared to the foolishness and ignorance of a belief in resurrection. The matter is settled. The inescapable conclusion is that there has never been any resurrection from the dead, there is not now any resurrection from the dead, and there never will be any resurrection from the dead. The frightening thing is that many of the people who voice these beliefs are not atheists. We expect atheists to voice scientific and investigative methods of determining reality. But it is not atheists that the Apostle was concerned about in Corinth, and it is not atheists that we should be concerned about today. It is ourselves that we should be concerned about. Paul was not writing to atheists. Paul was writing to people who identified themselves as being followers of Jesus. And in Corinth, these folks enjoyed just about everything that the Christian faith had to offer. Lots of it made sense; good teaching, sound moral and ethical principles, good fellowship, friendly atmosphere, but it all comes to foolishness and naught when the topic of resurrection enters into the picture. As irrational as it is, and it is irrational, I cannot prove to any of you here this morning that resurrection is our only hope in this life, and in the life to come, any more than the Apostle Paul could prove it for the folks in Corinth. It is, as he has already said, the very wisdom of God, perceived by human beings as foolishness.
If Jesus is not risen from the dead, then we have built an entire religion around something that is a lie. We are guilty of perpetuating a hoax. And so we need to ask ourselves, why would a group of people create a religion that highly values truthfulness and honesty and integrity, but base the whole thing on something as utterly foolish as a resurrected Messiah, if Jesus had not in fact been raised from the dead? That is foolishness, that even the simplest person can see right through. It makes no sense at all.
And why, we must ask, would those first and earliest followers of Jesus have risked their own lives, and sacrificed their own lives, for something they knew, deep down, was nothing more than the creation of a fruitful and imaginative mind intent on deception? Nobody in their right mind would give up their life for something they knew to be a lie; not today, and not 2,000 years ago. 2,000 years ago, if a person chose to become a follower of Jesus, it meant in many cases, that they had also chosen death. In his ministry, Jesus made it abundantly clear that he was inviting us to life, but to fully experience that life, it was imperative that we had to die first. His invitation was to emulate him in his march to his death on the cross, by taking up our own crosses.
Most of the earliest followers of Jesus would have quickly abandoned their faith, if not for their sincere belief that their Lord’s resurrection made possible their own resurrections from the dead. It would have been foolish for them to have risked shortening this life, if indeed there was no hope in a life yet to come. If there is nothing beyond the grave, why hasten the journey?
Ultimately, there can be no hope in Christ, if Jesus is not risen from the dead. If Jesus is dead, we also are dead. And though we appear to live and breathe, we are dead in our own sins, unforgiven and unredeemed, with no hope of any kind for the future. And if we are dead, all of those who’ve gone on before us, in that great cloud of witnesses, are also dead; gone forever, never to be seen again. And that is cause for the deepest grief and deepest sorrow, because it is grief and sorrow that will never be healed or ameliorated. We do not want to be pitied. But, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Has Jesus risen from the dead in our own hearts? Is our hope in the living and coming Christ?
* From The Rise Of Christianity, p. 211, 212 by Rodney Stark, 1996, Princeton University Press.